Reparations and Affirmative Action: What You Owe Me
Veteran journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault was one of the first two African Americans to attend the University of Georgia in 1961. Hamilton Holmes and Hunter-Gault had their admission to college delayed for two years while the University of Georgia tried to deny them admittance to the college. When they were admitted, they endured abuse and mistreatment, expulsion, segregated accommodations and restricted access to the campus dining room.
Hunter-Gault’s car was keyed, her tires flattened, and her life regularly threatened. Ironically, because she was assigned to segregated housing, some White students complained of discrimination because she had a nicer room. Hunter-Gault tells the story with humor and grace in her autobiographical In My Place. It is a book that should be read alongside the recent 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that the University of Georgia admissions policy is now unconstitutional.
The University of Georgia awards borderline students race-based points in their admissions ranking to give them a slight edge to be admitted to a university where they were, until 40 years ago, systematically excluded.
Three White women challenged the policy, their lawyers incorrectly noting that the policy constituted a “quota.” Since no set number of Black students were to be admitted, it is not clear where the quota language is coming from. The fact is that the university that once slammed its doors in young Charlayne Hunter’s face is now slamming doors on the life chances of thousands of Black Georgians, whose tax dollars go to support an institution at which they are not welcome.
The court said it is unconstitutional to give a few points to borderline Black students, but it has said nothing about the points that are given to “legacy” students, those Whites whose parents are graduates of the University of Georgia. Yet “legacy” status is nothing more than the academic version of the post-Reconstruction “grandfather clauses,” where Whites were accorded the right to vote simply because their grandfathers had voted. It is cynically racist that the three White women who challenged Georgia’s admission policy challenged them on race, not legacy, status. They may want to dismantle the history of racism, but they want to preserve, it seems to me, the sanctity of White skin privilege that comes from legacy status.
I was not surprised or amazed by the Georgia decision. In California, Michigan, Washington, Florida and Texas, policy-makers and legislators have been battling over how African Americans are treated in the admissions process. Jeb Bush’s policies have caused Black enrollment to plummet at the University of Florida, which was perhaps his intention. Yet the University of Florida, like the University of Georgia, is a state-financed school where African American tax dollars hold up an institution that has restricted access. Johnnie Cochran, where are you when we need you?
Judges seem to think that affirmative action policies have developed in a vacuum, not out of a historical context that still makes the case for special admissions compelling.
White folks don’t want to acknowledge what they gained from the legal advantages they have always had. And, too often, Black folks don’t want to push their claim for myriad reasons, including shame and embarrassment. But if we do entrepreneurial history, we will find that “what you owe me” is not just general reparations, but specific cases of individual White folks using the law to rip Black folk off, to take our thriving businesses, exploit our trusting partnerships, confiscate our land and our bank accounts, leaving us to rebuild. When I think “what you owe me,” I think reparations, but I also think Tulsa in 1921, and the hundreds of other Tulsa’s that were about nothing more than White resistance to Black economic success. A comprehensive Black economic history would have to talk about “what you owe me” from both a personal and a societal perspective.
The United Nations Conference Against Racism attempted to grapple with the reparations issue, but the United States did not want talk of reparations to rule the day. Our nation stormed out, not over reparations, but over language that looked at the role and rights of Palestinians in Israel. An opportunity for frank dialogue including ways to reverse and repair world bias were missed by the United States’ bully-ploy to take its marbles from the table as if conversation would cease without us.
There is a connection between affirmative action and the world agitation for reparations that we now experience. African American students and scholars have been able to view their past, forge their future, and hold their own in international dialogues, even when our country has behaved as if it is a few articles short of a bill of rights.
The University of Georgia is a much different place than it was when Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes matriculated there. But it is not quite the place it ought to be when it is slamming the door in Black students’ faces. Georgia owes Black students opportunity. America owes Black people reparations. The world owes a debt to those countries from which it extracted raw materials for selected area development. And perhaps we all — no matter what our race or ethnicity — owe ourselves a chance to contemplate and understand our history, and to put it in a futuristic context.
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